With only 1,5 percent of local government election results still outstanding, Independent Electoral Commission chairperson Dr Brigalia Bam on Wednesday night declared the elections free and fair.

"I can declare without reservation the local government elections of 2000 free and fair," she said at the closing ceremony at the IEC's national operations centre in Pretoria.

The outstanding results were expected to be finalised by close of business on Thursday, Bam said.

Deputy chief electoral officer Norman du Plessis said there were no major problems with the outstanding results. There were no fundamental disputes, the problems being more of a technical nature than anything else, he said.

President Thabo Mbeki paid tribute to the IEC. It was the general opinion of all political parties that the elections were well run and organised.

"We are not doing too badly."

Mbeki appealed to councillors to respect the hard work done by the IEC by ensuring that the new system of government worked.

The councillors needed to be "pathfinders" and "voortrekkers" because South Africa did not have experience in this form of government. It posed a particular challenge to those that had been selected to make sure the system functioned properly, he said.

Bam said the elections represented the final step in the constitutional transformation of the country.

"The new South Africa has finally arrived with its government having undergone meaningful transformation in every sphere of government."

Mbeki welcomed the results of the Human Sciences Research Council's exit poll, which indicated that 91 percent of voters deemed the elections to be free and fair, and only five percent had experienced some form of intimidation.

"It is a very good thing that voters leave the voting stations happy. Afterwards they must be able to say that local government is functioning well... producing the kind of results we need."

He said, however, it appeared not all South Africans understood the significance of these elections. The new system of municipal government was radically different from any previous system and had the capacity to make a big impact on people's lives.

A national voter turnout of about 48 percent was recorded. According to the HSRC poll, only about 25 percent of people aged between 18 and 29 voted.

"It is the responsibility of the government - national and provincial - and political parties to do everything they can to ensure that councillors... have the required capacity to do their work," Mbeki said.

"I hope... that all sectors of society will join hands to make sure this new sphere of democratic government actually succeeds."

Du Plessis said that based on 97,57 percent of the votes calculated by 6pm, the African National Congress had the support of 59 percent of the electorate, compared to the Democratic Alliance's 22 percent and the nine percent of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

The United Democratic Movement enjoyed two percent support. About one percent each went to the Pan Africanist Congress, the United Christian Democratic Party, the African Christian Democratic Party and independents.

The Freedom Front, the Minority Front and the Azanian People's Organisation each failed to reach the one percent-mark, while the rest of the parties shared the remaining two percent.

The ANC had gained control over 128 councils, the IFP 20 and the DA 17.

In Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal, the three parties have four seats each, while the ANC and IFP shared Underberg.

The DA and the ANC have an equal number of seats in seven councils, all in the Western Cape - Witzenberg (Ceres), Breede Valley (Worcester), Theewaterskloof (Caledon), Swellendam/Barrydale, Kannaland (Ladismith) and Laingsburg.

Results from 65 councils were still outstanding. Du Plessis said it was not worthwhile to rush the last part of the process and jeopardise the integrity of the results.

The political parties would have to sort out between themselves the matter of control in councils shared, he said.

The ANC took control of five of the six metropolitan councils - including the three in Gauteng. The party also won control of the Nelson Mandela metropole (Port Elizabeth), but the DA wrapped up Cape Town.

The count for Durban was still not complete, but the ANC with 47,6 percent support was leading the DA's 26,3 percent. The IFP had garnered 17,6 percent of the vote.

In Gauteng the DA managed to significantly cut into the ANC's support base, gaining 11,5 percentage points since last year's elections. The ANC lost roughly the same number of supporters, but has still won control over all Gauteng's councils.

In the Western Cape the ANC had lost 4,2 percentage points, while the DA gained 1,48. The DA has control over 15 councils in the province, compared to the ANC's five. The two parties were running neck and neck in Oudtshoorn, the only Western Cape council with results still outstanding.

The IFP lost six percentage points in support in KwaZulu-Natal, its traditional stronghold, the same number gained by the DA. The ANC's support in the province increased marginally.

But even once all the final results have been captured, the elections are not over.

Voters had elected 40 percent of the members of the district councils, but the councils themselves must still choose the remaining 60 percent at their constituting meetings next Thursday, Du Plessis said. - Sapa